The James Lawson Institute (JLI) was established in 2013 by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Washington, DC. It is now independent. The institute offers periodic assemblies for individuals to have an intensive learning experience in the basic theories and practice of the historic technique of nonviolent action, which goes back to ancient times. The institute stands in the tradition of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, the United Democratic Front of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, and other individuals and struggles that have helped to improve nonviolent resistance as a method for social change. Founded by the Reverend Dr. James M. Lawson, who was a primary adviser on nonviolent conflict to the two key southern organizations of the U.S. civil rights movement — the Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — the institute seeks to expand the ability of individual leaders, organizers, and the groups with which they work to achieve justice within a nonviolent framework that can be practically applied by civil society groups in the United States. We do not deliberate, debate, or study the use of violence or armed insurrections, partly because our institutes last at most five days in length, and partly because violent forms of struggle have been studied extensively in comparison to the research devoted to nonviolent action. Nor do we debate the alleged advantages or disadvantages of a violent wing (radical flank) of a campaign, movement, alliance, or organization; instead, we focus on methods for ensuring nonviolent discipline. This is important not for reasons of ideology, but because the opponent’s revelation of its own ruthlessness or brutality can set forces in motion that may ultimately undermine its political power. Introducing violence into a popular struggle also negates the potential for involving sectors or a population in self-reliant civil resistance and diminishes the possibilities for mobilization, recruitment, and development of a mass movement through which the oppressed themselves can become empowered. If anything, our focus has intensified because of recent research showing civil resistance to be more than twice as effective as armed struggle. Moreover, research has shown that campaigns with a violent wing (e.g. black bloc, Antifa) are less effective and experience diminished recruitment. Successful applicants who are invited to JLI agree to set aside such debates in our scheduled sessions. (Free time is available for informal topical debates, but the Institute does not attempt to recruit participants who advocate violence.) Our teaching staff is composed of individuals whose experience and study have focused on why and how nonviolent struggle works best. JLI’s presenters are generally scholar practitioners, who possess firsthand experience, teaching familiarity, and have conducted original research. Our adjunct presenters and facilitators are seasoned hands-on organizers with tangible and tested track records in civil resistance.


As a small nonprofit teaching institute, the James Lawson Institute (JLI) sponsors periodic learning opportunities for individuals who are already involved in contemporary nonviolent struggles in the United States or have purpose and reason to learn its theories and methods. The next institute convenes in Ohio, July 29 – August 2, 2018.The term nonviolent action is one of the many English-language terms coined by Mohandas K. Gandhi that we use today, referring to what he called a method, process, or technique of struggle. The phenomenon of nonviolent struggle goes back to the ancient world and has been found wherever researchers have searched for it. It is not “the opposite of violence.” It uses a form of power that is universal, sometimes called social power, referring to influences and pressures that can be applied by groups to achieve objectives. It is also called nonviolent direct action, because it does not rely on officials, agencies, representatives, or standard institutions of government or politics; instead it takes the group action directly to the cause of the distress or oppression. The Preamble to the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence holds that governments obtain “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the people’s power can be withdrawn. Nonviolent struggles seeking justice and relief from oppression have time and again relied on noncooperation with the source of the wrong in organizing the withdrawing of cooperation and obedience. Withholding the consent cited in the Preamble is often at the core of nonviolent resistance. Philosophy and practice are closely connected in nonviolent struggle. Mohandas K. Gandhi worked for two decades in South Africa and closely followed newspaper accounts of nonviolent struggles in Africa, Russia, and elsewhere. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed African national nonviolent action campaigns in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, which resulted in free elections leading to independence. Yet only in the latter half of the twentieth century did works by social philosopher Hannah Arendt, scholar Gene Sharp, and others such as Adam Roberts, Jacques Semelin, Peter Ackerman, Erica Chenoweth, Maria J. Stephan, Stephen Zunes, and Mary Elizabeth King began to appear. Their research was built on original analyses, new insights, and nonviolent struggles during the same period, including those involving James M. Lawson, Jr., in the United States, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik in Poland, the Pastors’ Movement of East Germany, Genaro Arriagada in Chile, and leaders of “Otpor!” (“Resistance!”) in Serbia. Their work was given further meaning by authors such as Bill Moyer, Howard Clark, April F. Carter, George Lakey, Michael Randle, Jack DuVall, and Hardy Merriman. New works by Christian Davenport, Sekou Franklin, and Daniel Hunter add to our understanding. Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan studied 323 violent, nonviolent, and mixed campaigns that occurred between 1900 and 2006. Their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict presents their findings showing that the nonviolent campaigns achieved success 53 percent of the time compared to 26 percent success in violent campaigns.In 1964, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “I venture to suggest . . . that . . . nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding relations between nations . . . which [ultimately] make war.” In the decades since, however, nonviolent civil resistance has never been allocated the funding for research that was given to fields such as international development, environmental degradation, human rights, aspects of national security, and building democracies abroad. JLI seeks to remedy this scarcity by periodically assembling scholar practitioners, leaders, organizers, and activists who are committed to pursuing their goals through nonviolent action to study and practice together. With Dr. Lawson’s close involvement, JLI is a unique setting where one can learn the theories and strategy of nonviolent action. It is not, however, an educational environment for debating violence and nonviolence. JLI convenings focus on knowledge and application of nonviolent civil resistance. This does not mean that consideration of the range of forms of violence in our society are not important or do not deserve your attention. It is important to understand diverse forms of violence, ranging from silent but pervasive structural violence to violent struggle as in armed insurgencies, so the need to be well-informed about violence is not in dispute. Violence has been studied extensively in comparison to the examination of nonviolent action. We have no West Point for nonviolent struggle, no U.S. National Defense University for understanding “people power.” Therefore, the Lawson Institute devotes its attention to civil resistance, which has until recently been understudied and often misunderstood. If you are seeking to learn about violence, or about mixing the methods of violent struggle and nonviolent struggle, you should consider another program.Our institutes combine presentations of historical cases, background and theory, current problems, and challenges facing contemporary campaigns. We have both presentations and interactive small-group sessions or discussion among the entire group. If you feel uncomfortable with presentations led by experts who have spent years investigating how nonviolent action works, or in examining successes or failures, or if you would regard a PowerPoint to be “talking down” to you, you may wish to consider another teaching and training program.Small-group breakout sessions are significant for our setting, because practical application deepens learning. Practicing the dynamics of nonviolent action in a safe place can be vital for comprehension. Unarmed action methods can sometimes lead to endangerment, injury, or attack, which brings us to a basic requirement of nonviolent struggle — it must be carried out without violent retaliation. Indeed, this can be part of how it induces change. Attacks against an unarmed nonviolent campaign in a minority of cases may lead to sympathies from police or security forces flowing toward the nonviolent challengers, when they adhere to strict nonviolent discipline (political jiu-jitsu). Remaining rigorously nonviolent despite reprisals can at times weaken or alienate the pillars of support in a society that are upholding the targeted group. Reactions called “backfire” can occur. We believe it is beneficial to practice in a safe space for such complex learning. If taking part in small-group enactments, or dramatic skits for practice, causes you to feel unsafe, however, you may choose another opportunity. Nonviolent action may be legal or extralegal, but cannot take place without replacing submissiveness and passivity with struggle. Active resistance is at the heart of any successful nonviolent movement. Well-ordered nonviolent sanctions can be used to place adversaries in a dilemma that they cannot solve through violence. Planning and preparation are keys to ensuring success. Although spontaneous outpourings and sudden, clever demands of prevailing powers have a place in the roster of accomplishments of civil resistance movements, improvisation is insufficient for achieving long-term, lasting results. Gandhi believed that training in nonviolent struggle was preparation for self-governance. A young leader of Otpor! in the 2000 national nonviolent revolution in Serbia said after it had disintegrated the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević, “We trained the nation.” Those of us involved in JLI believe that if the commonplace, extensive use of violence in our society and by our nation is to be meaningfully reduced or abandoned in today’s acute conflicts, a realistic alternative must be presented, understood, evaluated, and accepted. Therefore, we concentrate on understanding nonviolent action. If this is not what you are pursuing, please feel free to seek other options.

Goals of the James Lawson Institute

1. To promote an understanding of historical and present-day cases of nonviolent struggles, including Gandhi’s interventions of the 20th century, to throw light on conditions in our society (such as racism, sexism, poverty, militarism, environmental degradation, and plantation capitalism), which demand to be addressed and may with the planning and preparation that we offer be responsive to nonviolent action campaigns.

2. To strengthen and share insights, research findings, knowledge, and practical interactive applications for what Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr both called the “operative technique” of nonviolent resistance.

3. To prepare nonviolent practitioners with the background and simulation needed to create wise strategies and sound communications, including language appropriate for what Dr. Lawson calls the “new emerging society.”If you can agree in principle with these brief goals of the institute please resume the rest of the application process. The Lawson Institute uses a regional approach for its recurring assemblies.

The next institute convenes in Ohio, July 29 – August 2, 2018. If you believe that you would be eligible to apply, three more steps follow: a nonviolent action self-assessment, application questions, and reading a choice of two published articles to be followed by a quick quiz.